Historical events

Forced to flee: The Great Escape to the West in 1944

communistcrimes.org, 29. September 2020

In the fall of 1944, tens of thousands of Baltic people were forced to leave their homes due to the invasion of the Red Army. Many escaped because of war and fear of the new occupation and red terror. They hoped to return after the war, but most of them never came back. September 2020 marks 76 years since the Great Escape to the west.

In 1940, the Soviet Union occupied and annexed the Baltic States. The first year of occupation saw widespread repressions. The mass deportations were carried out on 14 June 1941 by Soviet authorities, which caused significant human losses to the Baltic people. Roughly 45,000 people were forcibly deported to distant parts of the Soviet Union.

In the summer of 1941, the German occupation soon replaced the Soviet occupation. But it lasted only until the summer-autumn of 1944. As the German forces retreated, the Soviet Union re-occupied three Baltic states. 

To a lesser extent, people headed west throughout the period of war. But the Soviet re-occupation led to a mass exodus of Baltic people. Mainly because people remembered the previous Soviet occupation (1940-1941), and they feared the recurrence of the Red Terror. By the end of the war, about 300,000 people escaped from the invading Soviet army.

As shown by the later events, many of those who fled would have fallen victim to communist repressions. In 1944 the violent foreign power separated the Baltics from the rest of the world for many decades. During the occupation, the repressive measures against Baltic nations continued. It reached its peak in March 1949. The Soviet authorities carried out new mass deportations. Approximately 20,722 Estonians, 43,230 Latvians, and 33,500 Lithuanians were deported to remote areas of the Soviet Union.

Paljud rannikuäärsetest linnadest ja küladest lahkunud põgenesid läände ülekoormatud väikelaevades. Foto: Eesti Arhiiv Austraalias.
Many people who left the coast fled west in overcrowded vessels. Photo: Estonian Archives in Australia

People mainly escaped across the sea from the coastal areas of Estonia, first to Finland and Sweden, and later to Germany. Many who had fled to Finland had to leave for Sweden because they faced possible extradition to Soviet power. By the end of the war, at least 40 000 Estonian war refugees were in Germany, and 27,000 in Sweden. In total, it is estimated that about 80,000 people were forced to leave. The collected stories of war refugees show that many were hoping to return home soon. Most people thought that the situation was temporary and Western allies would not leave the Baltic countries to the Soviet Union.

Ivi Erendi, an Estonian war refugee, who fled to Sweden (at that time she was ten years old), recalls:

“My father asked his good friend, who owned two small fishing boats, to take us away if the frontline collapses. We started our flight on September 21. We left from Nõva peninsula (coastal area in North-West Estonia). From the sea, we could see Tallinn burning. There were 36 people on our boat, and all of us sat on the deck. The weather was terribly stormy. All of us were seasick. We sat there for the night, the next day, and another night. We reached Sweden on September 23.”

Põgenike viimane pilk Tallinnale, 21. september 1944. Foto: Eesti Arhiiv Austraalias.
The last look at Tallinn for the fleeing refugees, 21 September 1944

All kinds of vessels, from the elegant yachts to rowing boats, were used to cross the Baltic Sea. Many war refugees arrived at their targeted destinations, but some fell victim to the stormy Baltic sea. It is hard to say how many people were lost on the dangerous journey. It is expected that the total number of Estonians who perished might be 6-9%.

Läti tsiviilelanikkonna Läänemere põgenemisteed.
Latvian evacuation and flight by way of the Baltic Sea. Photo: the Latvian National Archives

After the Soviet invasion of Latvia in the summer of 1944, an extensive flow of people started westwards. Very few people escaped across the sea to Sweden on fishing boats.  Most of the Latvian refugees were evacuated to Germany. The number of refugees in Germany was increased by the workers, prisoners and concentration camp captives, as well as the Latvian soldiers transported to Germany. It is estimated that at the beginning of 1945, 170,000 found themselves in refugee camps in occupied Germany.

Latvians used to have different ways to refer to the Great escape to the West of 1944. For many, this period is related to the notion of “DP time”. It comes from the abbreviation of DP (displaced persons), which refers to all people who were forced to leave their country and could not or dared not return home or to their country of residence because of the prevailing situation, and  gathered in the refugee camps.  However, the circumstances of refugees in German camps were not much better as they were threatened by the risk of involuntary repatriation. It was one cause why many resettled to other countries. As a result of these flights, their communities emerged in the US, Australia, UK, Canada, Sweden, or other countries.

Refugees were situated in the German camps from all three Baltic states. The original plan was to repatriate people to their homeland. Soon it was clear that a similar approach was not possible with occupied Baltic countries, as returning home would have led to persecution, deportation or even death.

Due to the geographical location of Lithuania, the Lithuanian war refugees escaped to DP camps in Germany by using the mainland roads. They tried to break away from the front by train, cars, or even on foot.  According to different estimations, the number of those who fled varies from 60,000 to 70,000. In the post-war years, most Lithuanian refugees emigrated to the US (roughly about 30,000 people) and Canada (about 20,000 people).

Many had to leave their friends, families, or relatives behind. Then the “Iron Curtain” separated them for decades. For the Baltic states, the political consequences of war ended with the restoration of independence in 1991.

Geislingen oli eestlaste suurim ümberasustatud isikute laager Saksamaal. Foto: Eesti Arhiiv Austraalias.
The biggest displaced persons camp of Estonians was in Geislingen, Germany. Photo: Estonian Archives in Australia


Sources and literature

Kaja Kumer-Haukanõmm, Teise maailmasõjaaegne eestlaste sundmigratsioon läände. Acta Historica Tallinnensia, 17 (1), 95−109.

Kristīne Beķere, Latvians Around the World (1945-1991). Collection of scholarly articles in 2 volumes, Latvia and Latvians, Volume II. Riga: Latvian Academy of Sciences, 2018, 751-787.

Tania Lestal, Remembering Estonia's WWII refugees. – September 19, 2020 September 18, 2020.

1944. a suur põgenemine läände, Estonica.org.

Ferdinand Kool, DP Kroonika: Eesti pagulased Saksamaal, 1944-1951. Lakewood, 1999.

Andres Kasekamp, Balti riikide ajalugu. Tallinn, 2011.

E-näitus "Suur põgenemine üle kahe mere" — Sõjamuuseum. 

E-exhibition Refugees from the Baltic Countries in German Camps, 1944-1951. Estonian National Archives, the Latvian National Archives, the Martynas Mazvydas National Library of Lithuania.